While Kazakhstan’s president has talked up the need for national dialogue as a way of tamping down political tensions, individual activists say they have faced harassment and restrictions on their right to move freely.
Serik Abishev, who led an independent team of activists monitoring this month’s presidential election, claimed on June 26 that he was a week ago abducted by operatives with the National Security Committee, or KNB, and taken to an apartment, where he was subjected to ominous threats.
“There were three of them. They started showering me with threats, telling me that I should cease my activities,” Abishev said in a Google Hangout interview. “My family, my parents, my children – they said something bad might happen to them.”
Abishev said he was not assaulted during the incident, which he said happened on June 19. The KNB has made no public statement on the allegation, but Abishev said he was summoned to their offices on June 26 to discuss what had happened.
Kazakhstan has in just the last few weeks seen a sudden spike of activism among citizens that have described themselves as fed up with the nation’s profound political stagnation.
With his scrupulous exercise in monitoring the June 9 presidential election, which saw President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev win 70 percent of the vote, 44-year-old Abishev has become one of the most recognizable proponents of that surge. Observation by his nongovernmental group at polling stations in Almaty and the surrounding province revealed what it said were “crude violations.”
One yet-uninvestigated case highlighted by Abishev’s team involved the reported use of disappearing ink in some polling stations. The claim was that by heating the ballot paper with a lighter, the ink would disappear, something that critics of the election say was being done to invalidate votes for the only would-be opposition candidate in the running, Amirzhan Kosanov.
Yevgeniy Zhovtis, the head of the Kazakhstan International Human Rights Bureau, argued that the pressure on Abishev likely stemmed from his success in documenting violations.
“It is not that they would be reconsidering the results of the votes anyway, but all these negative revelations are drawing the attention of society and international organizations. The authorities are getting very nervous,” Zhovtis said.
Another young activist, Daniyar Khasenov, who is affiliated to a group called the Italian Federation for Human Rights, told Eurasianet that he was denied permission to fly out of the country earlier this week.
Khasenov, who said he was provided with no explanation for the travel ban, is due to begin a four-week placement at the Medical University of Graz, in Austria, on July 1.
In an apparently linked development, Khasenov had his account frozen by Halyk Bank, Kazakhstan’s largest bank. The bank told Khasenov that this measure was adopted at the request of the Interior Ministry. Asked for further details on the situation, Halyk Bank cited confidentiality as grounds for declining to comment.
The pressure on activists in fact preceded the June 9 election. The decision by outgoing President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who resigned in March, to bestow power upon his close ally, Tokayev, was viewed by many political engaged citizens as a high-handedly undemocratic act.
To be precise, Tokayev was, as speaker of the Senate, fully entitled under the constitution to take over the presidency, but the perception among critics of the government is that the process was done without proper public consultation and that the rushed election was uncompetitive and served mainly as a fig leaf for a perpetuation of authoritarian rule.
Almaz Kumenov is an Almaty-based journalist.